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No easy answers for the rise in mental health issues among young people

Mark Parker

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Mental health experts are struggling to provide answers for the increase in mental health issues and suicides among the nation's younger population. Photo: Unsplash.

Part 2 of 2

In recent weeks, local and national health officials have sounded the alarm on the increasing rates of mental health issues and suicides in the nation’s younger population; although many point the finger at the pandemic and the rise in social media usage, an expert from the University of South Florida explains there are no easy answers.

Stanford soccer star Katie Meyer, 22, was found dead in her on-campus residence on March 1. Meyer’s parents confirmed that the student-athlete, who led Stanford to the 2019 national championship, died from suicide. Her death coincided with Self-Injury Awareness Day, and Meyer’s parents said there were no red flags, only that she “had a lot on her plate.”

Meyer is hardly alone, as a Healthy Minds Study showed that the rate of depression and anxiety among college students has doubled over the past decade. Dr. Kristopher Kaliebe, associate professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, helped to peel back some layers on the increase of a nuanced problem.

“Obviously, any suicide is a tragedy, and everyone wants to figure out ways to limit or reduce suicide,” said Kaliebe. “We are in an uptrend.”

Kaliebe, also a well-published researcher, confirmed a large increase in suicidal ideation and hospitalizations among adolescents and college-aged students across the country following the pandemic. While those statistics have risen recently, Kaliebe said it was important to put the problem into proper context.

Dr. Kristopher Kaliebe, associate professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, explained the many factors contributing to an increase in mental health issues. Photo provided.

Kaliebe said mental health issues and suicides rose through the 1990s before dropping at the onset of the 21st century, closely mimicking the crime rate. He added that officials began noticing increases in depression and anxiety among adolescents around 2011, although people forget it was once worse.

“But yes, it has grown,” added Kaliebe. “And it’s obviously a very serious challenge to our society and families and individuals.”

The factors:

For better or worse, Kaliebe said the national culture influences the rise and fall of mental health issues and suicide rates. While the influence is clear, he said it is harder to discern the exact effect that culture plays on mental health issues. Kaliebe mentioned drastic societal changes due to the prevalence of electronics, social media, and how the media presents the news as contributing to the problem.

Kaliebe said that media also influences suicide rates – yet it only explains blips in the trends rather than population-wide increases, such as what mental health officials are now reporting. While he believes social media played a part in some cases, he said it does not necessarily drive everyone to depression.

However, he said there is a clear correlation between increased access to social media and depression and anxiety within certain subsegments of people. Compounding the issue is that over the last two years of the pandemic, social media was often the only means of communication for adolescents and college students.

“It’s a complex subject, and sometimes people over-blame social media,” said Kaliebe. “But it does seem to be a component with some people.”

Kaliebe said Covid regulations and recommendations forcing people inside have also played a major role. He said the forced separation of young people from their “tribes,” combined with the constant thought of what they were missing, made it easier to become upset and depressed.

Kaliebe also noted the fear of catching Covid, especially through the first phases of the pandemic when there were no established treatments and no one knew the severity of the novel illness. As the pandemic progressed, fears of becoming sick and hospitalized transformed into coping with grief for the hundreds of thousands that lost family members to the virus.

However, Kaliebe feels Covid is only one part of the problem, evidenced by the increase in younger people with mental health issues before the onset of the pandemic.

“The pandemic alone is not a clear explanation for this,” he said. “So, we do need better explanations.”

Kaliebe then explained the preponderance of negative messaging in today’s society, despite people living through a prosperous era. He added people now have an “amazing amount” of freedom, the aforementioned crime rate is much lower and technology has made education and information more accessible.

While Kaliebe does believe technology can contribute to a fragmented society and loss of traditional culture, he also noted how it made life in a pandemic easier. Without computers, cell phones and Zoom calls, education and work productivity would have dropped to nearly zero.

Kaliebe said everyone wants a better society, but people tend to focus on the negativity instead of the progress and high quality of life compared to historical measures. He said it is important to find a better balance between the negativity and positivity in the world, and keep in mind that the human brain is an imperfect filter.

Just as social media, the news and television can spread negativity, Kaliebe said the opposite also holds true. He said when media and literature depict people as becoming suicidal – but then receiving help and treatment to overcome their problem – it seems to have a positive effect.

“We are getting much smarter as a society,” said Kaliebe. “I think we will probably end up figuring out what went wrong somewhat with this uptick in depression, anxiety and self-harm.”

The LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network launched a new website to connect area college students with mental health resources. For more information, visit the website here.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available any time day or night at 800-273-TALK (8255). The Crisis Text Line also provides confidential support for those in crisis by texting 741741.

Read Part 1 here.

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